Thursday, June 22, 2017
Review: The Essex Serpent
hardcover, 432 pages
A review copy of this book was provided through TLC Book Tours
Barnes & Noble
I sank into the world of Sarah Perry's The Essex Serpent, never suspecting that I was entering a fictional world that I would not want to leave. Perry has created a late Victorian world that is strikingly like our own: a battle rages between science and faith; the yawning gap between rich and poor begs for compassion--and a solution; women struggle for autonomy and independence.
Cora Seaborne, the character around whom both the plot and the other characters orbit, is recently widowed. She is tall, untidy, wealthy, and has a vibrant, curious mind. Her husband, Michael, was a cruel and devilish man, and she hardly mourns him. Instead, she feels a sense of relief, and freedom, that is entirely new to her. She leaves her home in London and goes seeking---something. Obsessed with fossils and discoveries, a Darwinian atheist, Cora goes to Essex, bringing with her her son Francis and his nanny (and Cora's friend), Martha. In Essex, Cora goes tramping for miles in a man's coat and boots, listens to the stories of a professional beggar, and hears the tale of a strange, legendary serpent-like creature who has haunted the area. Cora becomes determined to find out the truth about this creature of superstition and legend.
Along the way, Cora encounters, and is simultaneously attracted to and annoyed by the Reverend William Ransom. The two become close friends--despite their vehement disagreement on matters of faith, and many other things. Will's beautiful, ethereal wife Stella becomes a friend to Cora too, and Cora's son Francis is drawn to Stella too. There are complicated human dynamics at work here; attraction and repulsion, and much unrequited desire (mostly for Cora). Dr. Luke Garrett, the late Michael Seaborne's physician, and a brilliant surgeon fascinated by the workings of the human heart, also goes to Essex: he has diagnosed himself as being in love with Cora, and does not wish to recover.
Cora Seaborne is an absolutely enchanting character. She's definitely not your typical Victorian heroine: now that she is a widow, she is reveling in her freedom. She is free to not be beautiful, she is free to explore and search for fossils and the mystery of the Essex Serpent, she is free to have a lively friendship with a man, or more than one man. She settles in the village of Aldwinter to be closer to the Ransomes; there the villagers are steeped in superstitious fears, and Will, a freethinker but a believer, thinks perhaps the village is being punished for their sins, their lack of faith. There are just enough mysterious events (a dead man washes up on the shore, a child disappears, Will and Cora see a fantastic illusion along the skyline, just above the river) to create a mood of darkness and possible doom.
At the same time, this novel, and its main character, are teeming with life. Cora's exhilaration, the intensity of her perceptions, are felt by the reader, making this a novel that teeters between suspenseful darkness, and the transcendent rush of beauty in nature, in life, in feeling. I found myself completely captivated by Cora, and by this book. I truly never wanted it to end.
This is one of those rare books that left me with no desire to pick up another book. I just wasn't ready to leave the world of this novel. When I finished reading The Essex Serpent, I could still hear the voices of the characters; I couldn't stop thinking about The Essex Serpent, and I felt as though the book was continuing to make meaning in my mind. After reaching the last page, I put the book down, then picked it up again a few hours later to do something I've only done a few times: begin reading the book all over again. I didn't read to the end, but I wanted to hold on to the world of this novel for just a little longer.
The Essex Serpent is an extraordinary book. It is the best kind of historical fiction: it sheds light not only on an earlier age, but also on our own. It's harder to say who this book isn't for than to say who will like it: any reader who loves to think and feel? There are Dickensian moments (much about the poor in London, and how to help them--or not) and something of a Sarah Waters feel.Some of the Gothic qualities of Mary Shelley, the mystery of Wilkie Collins....there is a tincture of each of these. But in the end The Essex Serpent strikes me as entirely original, an immersive and brilliant tale of seen and unseen worlds.